Thursday, 10 August 2017

Two Tablets, One Story

In a side chapel (La Chapelle des Noyés) of the magnificent church of St Jacques in Dieppe - a church whose much-needed restoration proceeds slowly - I noticed a tablet in memory of the priest Jacques Hamel. Père Hamel was butchered in his old age by a Jihadist fanatic, while celebrating mass at his church in St-Etienne-de-Rouvray. A few yards to the right of his tablet is one in memory of another priest, Clement Briche, who was guillotined in the public square of Dieppe in 1794, a victim of equally fanatical revolutionaries acting in the name of Reason and Enlightenment. The two tablets make a poignant pairing, and a sad reminder of what human beings are capable of when gripped by an Idea that seems to demand the death of all those who do not share it.
 The name Hamel appears on another tablet in the same chapel, this one celebrating the brothers Jean and Charles Hamel, who in 1656 sailed from their native Dieppe to start a new life in Quebec. Several other families are similarly celebrated, in tablets put up by their present-day descendants in Canada. I used to read such things with interest but no particular emotion, until a visit to Quebec a few years ago - and, especially, a reading of Willa Cather's wonderful novel of 17th-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock - made me realise just what it meant to leave one life behind and try to establish a new one on an alien shore. Fiction, as ever, tells us far more than history can.


  1. Have you read Francis Parkman's histories of France in North America? To be sure, he is much more interested in the explorers and soldiers than in those who came to farm and fish. But history, in the hands of a fairly good historian, can tell one a good deal.

  2. The name of your chapel - The Chapel of the drowned - reminded me of other dreadful historical events that took place during the Revolution: the Drownings of Nantes (Les Noyades de Nantes) where priests and nuns were tied together (sometimes naked to humiliate them) in "Republican Marriages" or "Underwater Marriages". and placed on barges which were then sunk in the middle of the Loire. Thousands died like this.

  3. Thanks for the suggestion George.
    Guy, I think Richard Wilbur uses the word 'noyades' somewhere - did Patrick Kurp mention it? A ghastly story.

  4. Yes, that's right, it was Patrick Kurp